Feeding the Vegan Horde
The Lunch Room spins off a Filling Station.
From the September, 2017 issue
The Lunch Room spins off a Filling Station.
Phillis Engelbert and Joel Panozzo move fast. Three days after Argiero's closed last spring, the owners of The Lunch Room in Kerrytown announced that they would be taking the space for a new restaurant. The Detroit Street Filling Station, named after the building's original use as a gas station in the 1920s, opened in August. Meanwhile, they're refocusing their Kerrytown spot, which they've renamed The Lunch Room Diner & Canteen.
"We want to differentiate between our two locations because they are nearby each other and they're both vegan, but the concepts really will be different," Engelbert said shortly before the Filling Station opened. The Filling Station has an international menu and full service, while the Diner & Canteen is focused on "American vegan comfort food" served fast-casual style (counter order, table delivery).
The Kerrytown Lunch Room had been ambitiously trying to fill both roles. They'd been headed toward an international theme for a while with their weekly specials there, Panozzo says, but the tight space and limited service had hampered them.
"You have the ladies that lunch for two and a half hours, and then right behind them is someone who has to be back at their desk in twelve minutes, and right now we're trying to satisfy both," he explains. "We're figuring out a way to do it, but I think that's where things will part and separate. People who are looking for a fast-casual experience [or] a place to meet friends for drinks at night will be here [at the Diner & Canteen], and then for a nicer, longer dining experience, will be over there [at the Filling Station]."
The Filling Station also takes reservations, a request they frequently got at the Lunch Room but couldn't accommodate. When asked if they regularly have a line of customers waiting to eat, Engelbert laughs and says, "more like a horde."
The Filling Station menu features many dishes they've already been making,
like banh mi, pad thai, and their popular "power-up bowls," while the Diner will focus on veganized Americana: "There'll be sandwiches and a burger, and there'll be mac and cheese, and soup and salad, and chili. All vegan!" says Engelbert. "We'll also have a bar. We'll still be doing craft cocktails and beer and wine, and we'll have a 'boozy ice cream' menu that will have shakes and floats and incorporate elements of our bar. We'll also have a 'boozy sundaes' menu that incorporates liquors into our ice cream sundaes." Made with coconut milk, the ice cream comes from Reilly Craft Creamery in Detroit.
Engelbert says the Diner's menu will be smaller than the one at the Lunch Room. "That said, we have published the recipes for most of the menu items on our website at this point, and I would say that any menu item that we've discontinued that we haven't published a recipe for, if somebody wants it, we'll give it to them. Right?" she asks, turning to Panozzo for confirmation. "For sure!" he says.
In addition to the Diner and the Filling Station, the partners also run the Lunch Room Bakery and Cafe, which opened in 2015, at the Huron Towers apartments on Fuller Ct. To help fund the latest expansion, they're launching a program they call "Meal Plan 2.0" (version 1.0 helped fund the Kerrytown location in 2013). Customers can buy a gift card at three set prices, usable at any of their locations, and get a 10 percent discount on the menu price.
The whole project started in 2010, when Engelbert and Panozzo, then next-door neighbors and friends who had bonded over their vegan diet and love of cooking, started a series of "pop-up" dinners at various businesses around town. In 2011, they built a food cart and operated it at Mark's Carts for two seasons. The cart is still at Mark's today, now occupied by Everest Momo, the first food venture of Himalayan Bazaar's Pem Dorjee Sherpa. (Sherpa recently passed the cart on to a friend to open his own brick-and-mortar restaurant--see In the Works, below).
The partners also share a background of activism and community organizing. They donate 10 percent of Saturday-night proceeds to various local nonprofits, and in July they started their own nonprofit to support young ex-offenders with basic needs and employment. Engelbert says they're hoping revenue from the new restaurant will help them to get that project off the ground--and they're inviting "anyone in the business world who wants some marketing magic to join us in supporting the Youth Justice Fund."
As soon as Engelbert and Panozzo heard that the Argiero's space might become available, they met with the new owners of the building, Wickfield Properties. Negotiations took a while because "there was other interest in the space," but they signed the lease in May, then started a whirlwind of cleaning, replacing equipment, and design changes.
"I've been inspired by a lot of the historical images that I've found from the original filling station," says Panozzo. They replaced some of the missing globes on top of the roof, a feature of the 1925 Staebler Oil Co. building, and the restaurant's lightning bolt logo echoes Staebler's imagery. "We'll have a giant lightning bolt on the roof," Panozzo promises.
Detroit Street Filling Station, 300 Detroit, 224-2161. Tues.-Sat. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-3 p.m., closed Mon. thelunchrooma2.com
The Lunch Room Diner & Canteen, 407 N. Fifth, 224-8859. Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., closed Sun. thelunchrooma2.com
[Originally published in September, 2017.]
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